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Three years ago, Simpsons fans were surprised to learn that Alf Clausen was exiting the show after serving as the animated comedy’s composer for 27 years and earning nearly two dozen Emmy nominations for his work. Then, last August, the 79-year-old Clausen fired off a lawsuit against Disney and its Fox divisions with the claim that his firing was due to age discrimination. Now comes more revelations as the dispute turns quite ugly, with Simpsons producers arguing that Clausen’s suit is a frivolous one that impinges its First Amendment rights.
Until now, Fox has been fairly quiet about the events that led to Clausen’s departure.
According to an amended complaint that Clausen filed earlier this month, he was not only let go because of advanced age, but also due to a perceived disability. The composer revealed he has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. In the filing, Clausen also attacks Hans Zimmer, whose company replaced him on the show, for creating Simpsons music “inferior in quality, depth, range and sound, yet stylistically similar in substance.”
In new court papers, Fox and Simpsons executives tell a different story to explain Clausen’s ouster. That tale begins in 2011 when producers implemented pay reductions for the show’s staff and voice actors. At the time, the series considered replacing Clausen’s large, live orchestra with synthesizers and computer-generated music. But Clausen held on to his job (which was paying him about $12,000 an episode plus royalties, according to a contract that was included in the court filings Tuesday).
Then came an episode of The Simpsons titled “The Great Phatsby,” a hip-hop spoof of the famous novel The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Around November 2016, work had begun on this episode. Jim Beanz, one of the producers behind Fox’s Empire, was brought in as a guest star and composer for the episode, but Clausen still did much of the work. Or so everyone thought. And Simpsons producer James L. Brooks wasn’t liking what he was hearing.
In a declaration, Simpsons producer Richard Sakai (the president of Brooks’ Gracie Films) states, “Brooks questioned whether Clausen was the right person to prepare rap music and questioned his work more generally.”
“Around that time, I learned that Clausen had been delegating some of the work of composing music for The Simpsons to others, including his son Scott Clausen,” adds Sakai. “I believed his unauthorized delegation was unacceptable. I called showrunner [Al] Jean and told him that Clausen had been delegating his composing work; he conveyed to me that he was surprised and disturbed as well.”
This allegedly led to more meetings between Brooks, Sakai, Jean and Simpsons showrunner Matt Selman, where they discussed how Clausen was having others do his work. “We decided that we could improve the music on the show by replacing him,” Sakai states.
The justification being put forward for Clausen’s firing dovetails into a rather hot area of California law.
California is among many states to enact a law aimed at protecting First Amendment activity. Specifically, under its SLAPP statute, defendants hauled into court for constitutionally protected activity on a matter of public concern get a chance to defeat litigation at an early stage. In such cases, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to demonstrate a likelihood of prevailing before the litigation moves any further.
Where California’s SLAPP law has undergone recent appellate scrutiny is in the domain of employment law, particularly with regards to entertainment and media companies, which are in the business of speech. At some level, all actions by a media company — even staffing ones — might be connected to constitutionally protected activity on a matter of public concern, so does that mean any plaintiff suing these companies faces a more difficult path? California’s appellate judges have directed courts to focus on the “specific nature of the speech rather than on any generalities” before coming to a conclusion about whether to invoke SLAPP protections.
A few years ago, for example, CNN fired an Emmy-winning producer only to face a lawsuit claiming racial discrimination. Last July, a California Supreme Court issued a decision concerning this dispute — Wilson v. Cable News Network. It was held that discrimination and retaliation claims could indeed fall within the ambit of the SLAPP statute, and that in such instances, a lawsuit should be screened for minimal merit. The appellate court also said that courts should look beyond pleadings and consider evidentiary submissions when examining the reasons for someone’s firing. Ultimately, in this case, CNN triumphed thanks to an allegation that the producer had committed plagiarism. That led to a staffing decision in furtherance of speech rights, California’s highest court decided.
In attempting to strike Clausen’s complaint pursuant to California’s SLAPP statute, the Simpsons defendants point back to that appellate opinion.
“As in Wilson, Defendants have presented evidence that the decision not to use Clausen as composer in future episodes of The Simpsons had speech-related motivations,” writes Adam Levin, the Mitchell Silberberg attorney representing the defendants.
Levin argues that Clausen is unlikely to prevail in his complaint because he was an independent contractor and not an employee where the discrimination claims apply. The defendant adds that Clausen can’t prove that he was replaced on The Simpsons based on pretext given how producers have offered legitimate reasons for their decision.
The court papers (read here) add, “Apart from the considerable evidence supporting the legitimate creative reasons for the decision, Clausen’s claims are undermined by several facts: He was 48 when he was first engaged as a composer and continued to work through his 50s, 60s and into his 70s; Clausen admits his disability was not affecting his work and that he needed no accommodations; and he fails to identify any comments showing animus based on his age, disability or any protected activity.”
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